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Watch the Week 1: The Standard 12 Bar Blues Progression online guitar lesson by Bob Wolfman from Essential Guide To Jazz Blues Comping

The 12 Bar blues Progression -

The term "blues" is open somewhat to interpretation as to its true definition. There are most definitely different styles within the blues genre...such as Mississippi Delta blues, Chicago blues, British rock blues, Texas blues and country blues, and yes, even jazz blues. Some purists may argue about what truly defines the blues, but we can all pretty much agree as to it's mechanical form in a practical context for learning and experimenting.

blues chord progressions may range from very simple to pretty complex, where the simple form utilizes the most basic chord forms - triads or major, minor, and dominant 7ths, and the more complex progressions use more complex chord forms. We will delve more deeply into the subject of chord substitution in the next lesson that follows. Let's keep it really simple for now though just for those of you who may need a little more of a primer or a refresher before we jump into the more juicy stuff.

For our purposes here, in this 8 week course on jazz blues comping, we will use the 12 bar blues form only. We will not be using the 8 bar or 16 bar blues forms. As I mentioned, we can all pretty much agree as to the mechanical form of a "blues" chord progression, and this would translate to mean the first chord in the very first bar (or measure) will be some form of a I(tonic) chord, and the chord in the fifth bar (or measure) will be some type of IV (subdominant) chord. There may be a lot of variety in all the other measures of the progression as you will see in these upcoming lessons. Also, keep in mind that the blues uses the Dom. 7th chord as opposed to the major.

Although the 12 bar blues is a really simple musical vehicle, it can be spiced up in an infinite variety of ways, and even in it's simplest form with the simplest chords...it can really cook!

jazz/blues is an excellent place to start the journey of becoming a really proficient accompanist in jazz and other genres. This is mainly because you're probably already quite familiar with the blues, and it's a very simple musical form, a fundamental foundation for most popular music throughout the 20th Century up to the present day. The blues is also such a rich, great sounding form of music we all love, but from a learning standpoint there will be less for you to have to remember. jazz standards usually have many more chords and more complex harmonic rhythm than a 12 bar blues per se.

One of my favorite aspects of playing and learning the guitar has always been (and still is) creating rich, colorful chord progressions through experimentation and exploration with chords and substitutions. I love how different guitarists actually have their own signature sound and style, much of which is determined by their own personal choice of chords and their arrangements. Jim Hall, Joe Pass, Johnny Smith, and Joe Beck are all excellent examples of great "comping", but notice that each of these guys will play an old standard tune like "Misty", or "My Funny Valentine" and make it completely their own. Of course there are other variables beside their chord choices, such as the rhythms, dynamics, and tonal variations which help define and characterize their own individual "sound" and style. Same for any instrumentalist really, but players of chordal instruments such as piano have a big advantage where chords are concerned. Chick Corea, Oscar Peterson, or Herbie Hancock will all play an old standard, and they'll all put their own personal "spin" or trademark sound to it largely due to their choice of chords.

So, keep in mind that what you put into it is what you get out of it, meaning, if you play mechanical with no feeling, well...that's how it sounds. The focus here is on chords and ways to enrich your sound for chordal accompaniment using more colorful choices of chords. You are strongly encouraged to experiment with different rhythms and styles, and to ALWAYS play with feeling.

Let's look at our first example of the 12 bar blues progression.

Variations on the blues Progression

This week we're working with two basic 12 bar blues progressions, starting with the basic 12 bar progression "Stormy Monday" which has some variation from the standard 12 bar. However, as mentioned, the 1st measure starts on the I chord, and measure 5 is the IV chord. For "Stormy Monday" the main departure from the standard 12 bar blues form is simply a chromatic movement up to the III-7 chord (C#-7) in the 8th bar, and then back down to the II-7 chord (B-7) in bar 9. Bars 7 and 8 are actually what creates the most characteristic and recognizable feature of this particular tune. The last two bars are basically I - IV in bar 11 and then I -V in bar 12. Pretty "bluesey"!

*Important to note - In bar 10, I choose to use Bbmaj7, which functions as a flat IImaj7 chord. Traditionally speaking, you'll hear most blues artists (The classic Allman Brothers version for example) use the D-7 chord in bar 10, which functions as a IV-7 chord in the key of A.

Next, we'll be working with a classic 12 bar "jazz/blues" form. The main feature of this particular progression is the introduction/use of the II - V cadence, and this is also where the jazz comes from in the title "jazz/blues". The most common feature of most standards in jazz and the entire American Songbook for that matter is the use of the IIminor 7th chord moving to the VDom7 chord. You will see this happening in almost every tune in any fake book you'll come across.

In bar 7 we move from C#-7 to F#7b9 (analysis translates this to be: II-7 to V7/II). This sequence functions as the II-V of B The B-7 in bar 9 is the II of A. So, then we move from this B-7 in bar 9 to E7b9 in bar 10, and these 2 bars function as the II-V of A. A is of course the I or Tonic chord for this progression.

You'll see in the upcoming lessons how the use of more colorful chord forms coupled with the use of simple harmonic devices (such as we just examined) will help you become a much more proficient accompanist.

In time you will develop "sonic recognition" of more rich, colorful chords with more complex labels, such as C13(b9) just for an example. In other words, you'll know in your mind how the chord actually sounds just by seeing a given chord symbol on paper. As with any other skill set this ability to mentally recognize chord sounds by only seeing a symbol will improve over time with practice. You can create some fun ear training exercises to really accelerate the recognition process, but there is no substitute for experimentation. Also, write new ideas down on paper, and play new chord substitutions in context repeatedly.

I have my students actually create blank chord diagrams above the staff on blank music manuscript paper. At least 2 diagrams per measure, and the idea is to come up with at least 2 new substitutions for the original chord form for a standard tune. This approach works very well for both developing "sonic recognition" and for becoming faster and more proficient at playing new colors as well when comping.